Ancient History & Civilisation

FIVE

THERMOPYLAE I: MOBILIZATION

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My Lord, you know that among living creatures it is the mighty ones that god strikes with his thunderbolt, in envy of their excessive pride. It is always the large buildings and the tallest trees that are blasted by lightning. It is god’s way to bring the lofty low … For god tolerates pride in none but himself.

Artabanus to Xerxes, Herodotus, Histories 7.10

AT THE beginning of what we know as the seventh book of Herodotus’s Histories the historian stages a dramatic reconstruction.* He describes how Xerxes came to the Persian throne and gives his entirely plausible opinion that it was Atossa the Queen Mother, daughter of Cyrus the Great, who in effect fixed the succession for him. He then takes us to the heart of the Persian Empire to the court at Susa, and into the innermost chamber of Xerxes himself, indeed into the very mind of the Great King. And he titillates us with the possibility that Xerxes might have decided otherwise, might not have decided to invade Greece in 480 after all. Indeed, he presents the invasion as not Xerxes’s own idea at all, but that of Mardonius – who, as his readers would know, was to be Xerxes’s defeated generalissimo at the decisive Battle of Plataea in 479. He owed that appointment no doubt in good part to his own prowess, having already been entrusted with major commissions by Darius. But the facts that he was Xerxes’s first cousin (son of a sister of Darius) and that his father was Gobryas, one of Darius’s six co-conspirators in bringing Darius to the throne in the late 520s, will not have harmed his career prospects one bit.

To the promptings, or rather urgings, of Mardonius to invade were added the importunities of a number of medizing Greeks. Most prominent among such were the members of the ruling dynasty of Larissa in Thessaly – the region of Greece next over the border of the then Persian Empire, which ran as far as the southern frontier of Macedonia – and members of the Athenian ex-tyrant family of the Peisistratids. Such medizers had mixed motives, probably. For some, it was a fatalistic sauve qui peut attitude that predominated: the Persians were going to win, they calculated, so let’s be on the winning side, or at least not stand out too visibly as opponents of the victors. For others, there was a positive feeling of warmth towards the idea of a future Persian imperial rule: had not the Persians not merely tolerated but actively supported ‘tyrants’ among the cities of their east Greek subjects? For both sorts, too, there was probably more than a dash of the (characteristically Greek, it has to be said) ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ syndrome.*

Herodotus imagines Xerxes calling a council of war, as he surely did, but the precise words spoken in conversation between Xerxes, Mardonius and Xerxes’s wise old uncle, Artabanus, need bear no close relation to the actuality. In a sense Artabanus is a stock character of Herodotus’s, the ‘warner’ figure who sees that the situation to be faced is not black and white, who foresees the possible impediments to a project and the difficulties in fulfilling it at least as clearly as its likely success. He is thus a foil both to Xerxes, the relatively young, inexperienced and excessively bullish figure, and to Mardonius who – at least in Herodotus’s scenario – was gung-ho for the invasion.

One passage of Artabanus’s set speech goes to the heart of the matter, at least as it was constructed retrospectively by Herodotus. Through ‘dramatic irony’ it foreshadows Xerxes’s ultimate failure:

My Lord, you know that among living creatures it is the mighty ones that god strikes with his thunderbolt, in envy of their excessive pride. It is always the large buildings and the tallest trees that are blasted by lightning. It is god’s way to bring the lofty low … For god tolerates pride in none but himself.

This is tragic, in the precise sense in which this sort of sentiment was worked out on the Athenian tragic stage, most relevantly in Aeschylus’s surviving tragedy The Persians, first staged in spring 472. There is good reason also to suppose that Herodotus, conventionally and deeply pious as he was, did indeed believe this was how the sublunary world worked.* But what then follows in Herodotus’s teasing narrative is an episode that is almost comic. At first Xerxes is furious with Artabanus, the only one of his intimate counsellors to have advised against undertaking the Greek war. Next, on maturer reflection, he is persuaded of the wisdom of the older man’s view. But then Artabanus changes his mind, whereupon Xerxes instantly reverts to his original, pro-invasion opinion. The reason given for these sudden switches by Xerxes and Artabanus? The intervention of dreams, a classic manifestation of the divine in Herodotus’s book but also a thoroughly Homeric literary device: a neat way of reminding readers of the epic nature and scale of the impending conflict, and of what was at stake in it for the future of East–West relations. This sort of dramatized account has the further advantage, for a Greek historian, of revealing the weakness, irresolution and lack of understanding that fatally flawed the Persians’ main man, the King of Kings.

Yet Thucydides, Herodotus’s greatest successor as a historian, strikes a very different note, a chilling note of realism, in his account of the causation of the Atheno-Peloponnesian War of 431–404. He brings matters firmly down to earth. He had, it is true, a jealous professional interest in claiming that all wars previous to ‘his’ war were lesser affairs, and he probably had Herodotus’s war specifically in mind as a target. On the other hand, Thucydides’s account of the cause of all great wars, not just the Atheno-Peloponnesian War, smacks more of persuasive insight and intelligence than does Herodotus’s tragicomic confection.

For, as Thucydides has his Athenian speakers tell the Spartans at the beginning of his History, there are three main motives that drive all interstate relations, irrespective of whether the state is an absolutist monarchy of the Persian sort or a democratic republic of the Athenian kind or a modified oligarchy like Sparta. These are, in their usual order of precedence: strategic concern for a state’s collective security; ideological-psychological concern for its status, reputation and honour; and desire for economic advancement or profit. Thucydides’s Athenians expressed them more starkly as fear, honour and profit. A combination of these three will also explain why Xerxes made the decision he did, namely to invade mainland Greece with a view to conquering it, and why he had to make that decision and no other.

In his concern for imperial security, and especially about what nastinesses might conceivably come from just over the furthest border, in 513 Darius had invaded Europe from Asia across the Bosporus strait. Later, he had authorized Mardonius’s conquest of European Thrace. There were Thracians on either side of the two straits, the Hellespont (Dardanelles) and the Bosporus. The idea was that, by incorporating both, the Empire was made that much more secure. But was it, really?

Status operated as a causal factor both personally and collectively. Xerxes was at least as much in the shadow of a famously dynamic hyper-achieving father as Alexander of Macedon was to be, initially, in that of Philip of Macedon. Both sons staked their claim to parity, Alexander even to superiority. But of the two only Alexander succeeded in making his claim good. Collectively, there was the pesky Athenian issue to settle. The Persians’ defeat by Athens and Plataea at Marathon had still not been cancelled out, let alone erased from memory. And if Athens was to be put in its place, why not the rest of mainland Greece too while Xerxes was at it, so as to teach all the mainland Greeks not to meddle in a sphere not their own, nor even to think of inflicting a defeat on Persia ever again – a lesson they’d never forget?

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Great King Darius I (r. 521–486) was the first human in history to have his own portrait stamped on coinage of his own issue. The eponymous ‘daric’ was struck in both gold (as here) and silver, and performed key diplomatic as well as economic functions both outside and within the Persian empire. On the obverse (front side) a crowned Darius is represented in profile moving purposefully to the right, spear in his right hand, bow in his left – a combination that Greeks found utterly alien, as they found a great deal about the Achaemenid monarchy.

It might seem extremely implausible that Xerxes could have been tempted into invading Greece by the prospect of further material gain. As Demaratus was going to observe rather poetically to Xerxes,1 Greece and Poverty were foster-sisters.* A further hint that economics may not have been the most cogent of the arguments comes from Mardonius’s wild claim to Xerxes that Greece was a veritable garden centre, just full of all sorts of trees. This was no doubt an argument designed to appeal to a garden-loving Persian monarch, but on purely empirical grounds it was not especially persuasive, one might have thought. Nevertheless there were some silver and gold mines to be lusted after, and the revenues from some trading emporia to be harvested.

The news of Xerxes’s preparations will have reached Sparta fairly soon after the order for mobilization had gone out from Susa in, let us say, 484. Sparta had friends in the offshore islands and coastal cities of the Persian Empire, and they in turn will have had their own contacts with the two local satrapal centres of Sardis in Lydia and Dascyleum in Hellespontine Phrygia to the north. The reaction in Sparta was one of great dismay. Being exceptionally pious, and believing fervently in divine retribution, many Spartans including members of the top political elite feared that a destructive Persian invasion might be heaven’s way of punishing them for gross impiety. The gross impiety in question, they believed, was their murder of Darius’s heralds, or envoys, in or about 491. For heralds of whatever nationality or ethnicity were universally considered to be sacred; that is, their persons were considered sacrosanct. To kill a herald in cold blood was to incur an unusually strong form of religious miasma.

How, the Spartans asked themselves, might they absolve themselves of this stain; how might they pay due retribution and restitution to Xerxes? The answer seemed straightforward in principle. They would send to Xerxes a human sacrificial victim as a return offering. Were he to accept that, then conceivably he might call the whole expedition off. But there remained the practical problem of finding a suitable and willing victim. Herodotus tells us that the Spartans (contrary to their normal practice) held many consecutive assemblies of their citizen body of warriors, each with just the one item on the agenda: which Spartan would be prepared to offer himself as this aversionary, retributive human sacrifice to Xerxes? Eventually an answer was found, and the strength of the Spartans’ faith in this solution, or at any rate of their wishful thinking, is to be inferred from the fact that not one but two noble Spartans did offer themselves and were accepted by the Assembly. They were noble, too, in more senses than one, since they probably belonged to the hereditary Spartan aristocracy of self-styled ‘descendants of Heracles’.

Sparta liked pairs: two kings; two divine symbols and guarantors of the twin thrones in the shape of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux; Zeus paired with Athena as objects of devotion in more than one Spartan cult; and so on. But beyond this cultural predilection, and beyond even the act of collective religious faith involved, what is most noticeable and noteworthy in hindsight is this willingness of the Spartans to put the good of the community, the city, and even of some notion of ‘Greece’ above purely personal or individual advantage: in other words, to sacrifice themselves for a larger good and a greater goal.

The two would-be victims, Sperthias son of Aneristus and Boulis son of Nicolaus, duly set off for the Persian Empire. They were received first at Sardis by the satrap Hydarnes and were told that, when they reached Susa, at the other end of the Royal Road, they would have to pay proskunêsis, obeisance or the kowtow, to Great King Xerxes. They recoiled in horror from the very suggestion2 and, being bluff Spartans, spoke their mind to the satrap. Such reverence, they said, was fit only for the gods, not for a mortal man. This was not to be the last time that Greeks deliberately or unconsciously misunderstood this custom of royal etiquette.* For the Persians proskunêsis was not an act of religious worship, since the Great King was not considered divine. It would be interesting to know whether Herodotus himself laboured under this delusion too. At any rate, he seems to have used proskunêsis as part of his case against the Persian monarchy, and specifically against Xerxes, on the grounds that it transgressed the proper boundary line separating mortals (no matter how exalted) from the gods.

When the two Spartans did reach Susa, they were ushered into the royal presence. There would have been no problem in finding a translator (hermeneus) to convey to the Great King what – and in this case also whom – they were offering. But there was still plenty of scope for the sort of cross-cultural misunderstanding that had afflicted Spartan–Persian relations since Cyrus’s gibe about never trusting men who come together to trick and cheat each other in the marketplace.3 Xerxes, Cyrus’s grandson, is said merely to have laughed at the pair, haughtily, and dismissed their doubtless sincerely meant and religiously motivated gesture as a joke. But the joke was on Xerxes, did he but know it. Precisely this sort of cultural misunderstanding was to be repeated in reverse by Xerxes in the Thermopylae campaign, when he was foxed by the Spartan warriors’ custom of combing out their very long locks as they were preparing to fight and, if necessary, die.

The vehicle Herodotus used to expose this deeply damaging misunderstanding was Spartan ex-King Demaratus. This was not without its irony, since Demaratus was not the most obvious choice to represent and uphold good Spartan values in relation and opposition to barbarian Persian ones. After being deposed from the Eurypontid throne in about 490, Demaratus had for a time remained in Sparta as a de facto commoner, though still a man of high distinction. He was distinguished enough at all events to be entrusted with organizing a religious festival. But while undertaking this task, in Herodotus’s account, he was mocked publicly and viciously for his fall from royal grace – by Leotychidas, the relative and personal enemy with whom the powerful Agiad king Cleomenes had seen to it that Demaratus was replaced. Demaratus’s pride understandably prevented him from stomaching the insult, whereupon he took himself off from Sparta, for good.

What Herodotus’s account does not satisfactorily explain is why Demaratus should have taken himself off where he did – to the court of Xerxes. Why could he not just have gone into dignified exile much nearer to home – somewhere sympathetic in Arcadia, for example, as Cleomenes had done before and as other Spartan ex-kings, or kings sent into exile, were to do after him? As it was, Demaratus not only fled to the heart of the Persian Empire at a time when its hostile intentions towards at least some Greek cities – especially Athens and Plataea – were already manifest. He even managed to worm his way into the innermost circle of Xerxes’s foreign advisers. It was as a member of this privileged group that he returned from Persia to Greece in 480, in Xerxes’s train; and in the pages of Herodotus – though with what degree of historical authenticity it is hard to judge – he makes a series of suggestions and recommendations to his new royal master that Xerxes would have done well to heed. As, of course, he did not, and with ultimately disastrous consequences.

When a Persian Great King undertook an expedition of this gargantuan scale, its preparation was a matter not of weeks or months, but years – about four years in this particular case. Orders would have been sent out first to the two most intimately concerned local satraps, those of Sardis in Lydia and Dascyleum, well placed up there in the north to control the Hellespont strait (Dardanelles). It would be their job and that of their satrapal counterparts in the other provinces involved to raise the troops required, ensure that provision was made for the supply of weapons and armour, see to the condition of the roads, co-ordinate the commissariat and so forth.

Xerxes’s uncle Artabanus, interestingly, is said to have advised firmly against using the subject Asiatic Greeks to fight against their cousins across the water. Either, he thought, they would indeed fight them, but badly, or they would endeavour to take the mainland Greeks’ side against the commands of their Persian overlord. But Artabanus was overruled, again; and in fact in 480–479 Xerxes would have many more Greeks fighting with him, on his side, including many ‘volunteers’ from the mainland as well as his duty-bound subjects of Asia, than against him, and not to any noticeably detrimental effect. At least, it was not mass disaffection or poor performance by his Greek troops that was to prove chiefly responsible for his eventual defeat.

Two extraordinary engineering projects also had the effect of broadcasting the intended invasion well in advance. Thousands of conscript corvée labourers were impressed and sent to carve a canal actually through Athos, the easternmost prong of the three-pronged Chalcidice peninsula jutting into the northern Aegean.* Mt Athos is today known as ‘Holy Mountain’ and is a key centre of Greek Orthodoxy, but Xerxes’s motives were entirely secular. In 492 an earlier Persian expedition against mainland Greece, sent by Darius to take revenge on Eretria and Athens for their complicity in the Ionian Revolt, had suffered what Herodotus calls ‘fearful losses’. Before they could round the promontory of Athos they were caught by a gale that blew them on to the rocks. Herodotus believed that as many as three hundred ships and some twenty thousand lives were lost, but even if these figures should probably be scaled back, the losses were still immense enough to abort the expedition, which confined itself to land operations in northern Greece. Almost as significant is that the commander of that failed expedition had been Mardonius son of Gobryas, then recently married to a daughter of Darius. One begins to understand Mardonius’s extreme enthusiasm for Xerxes’s new grand expedition.

The other preparatory grand projet of Xerxes was to build a bridge of boats across the Hellespont. This was not the first time a large Persian force had been conveyed by this route from Asia to Europe – Mardonius had done likewise. Nor was it the first bridge of pontoon boats carrying a Persian expedition from Asia to Europe – Darius had crossed the Bosporus strait from Chalcedon to Byzantium in this way in his expedition of 513. This time, however, its designers and constructors were not Greek. Xerxes was taking no chances of sabotage. So he set to the task some of his principal maritime subjects, Phoenicians and Egyptians, who wove and plaited huge, thick ropes out of papyrus (the Egyptian native speciality) and flax and strung them across ships lined up side by side so as to span the divide: from Abydus on the Asiatic side of the narrows to Sestus on the European.

As these works progressed, and as news of the great mobilization going on in Asia filtered across to the Greek mainland, it ceased to be a case of individual Greek cities being required to decide whether or not to make a stand against Xerxes. Some form of concerted Greek resistance was clearly obligatory. The germ of it was indeed already apparent in the events of 490. The Athenians, when faced with the invasion led by Datis and Artaphernes that foundered so signally at Marathon, had sent to ask aid from the Spartans. For Sparta alone commanded the sort of multistate alliance that could serve as the core of a military resistance by land. The sea, however, was quite another matter. The Spartans were notoriously a land-based power, and the one truly significant naval state that probably was within their ‘Peloponnesian League’ alliance was Aegina. But Aegina, the island-state in the Saronic Gulf within sight of Athens’s ports, had medized in the late 490s.

Athens, therefore, was already looking for ways to neutralize the threat posed from the sea by Aegina, when in 483 a fortunate strike of an unusually rich seam in the Athenians’ state-owned silver mines at Laureum came to their aid. By then the threat from Xerxes was already all too apparent to at least one Athenian: Themistocles (his name means ‘famed for Right’). Though well born and wealthy, Themistocles came from a relatively obscure family – as is perhaps indicated by his father’s name, Neocles (‘new to fame’). Themistocles would prove to be the single most influential figure on the Greek coalition side. He had first attained some political prominence when elected as chief archon (executive officer) of Athens for 493/2 and, as such, had inaugurated the turn to the sea that was to be the making of the city’s fortune and fame. He had been the first to suggest that Athens’s main naval as well as commercial harbour should be Peiraeus, and not Phaleron as before. Ten years later his hour had come, occasioned by the discovery in the silver mines.*

Normally, it seems, such an excess yield of silver would not have been minted into coin but distributed in exactly equal shares to every Athenian citizen in the form of bullion. It was reckoned that the strike of 483/2 would have been enough for a universal distribution of a sum equivalent to a couple of weeks’ wages for a skilled artisan. But Themistocles had another, and better, idea. The whole extra sum, he argued in the Athenian Assembly, should be devoted to public purposes, specifically to the building of a fleet of the very latest model of oared warships, the trireme.* Now, Athens was an egalitarian and direct democracy. Everyone’s vote by raised right hand in the Assembly counted for one, and no one’s for more than one. The will of the majority would prevail. And the majority of Athenians were poor men, mostly farmers rather than skilled urban workers. To them, a couple of weeks’ wages, silver cash in hand and up front, must have seemed a mighty attractive proposition. But Themistocles persuaded them otherwise, entirely bearing out Thucydides’s retrospective encomium of him as the most naturally gifted politician with the greatest insight into the present, the greatest foresight for the future, and – therefore – the greatest ability to improvise appropriate solutions.

Thucydides might have added – as he did explicitly apropos of Themistocles’s greatest successor, Pericles, who seems to have inherited a great deal of his outlook as well as enjoying many of the same natural endowments – that Themistocles had also to be almost superhumanly persuasive to make his arguments tell decisively. Since it was not clear to him that the majority of Athenians were yet fully apprised of the nature and imminence of the Persian threat, he claimed that the fleet whose construction he was advocating was for use against not Persia, but Aegina – a very present and indeed visible enemy. Athenians would have remembered, or been firmly told, that the Aeginetans had been no help to them whatsoever in their dire emergency of 490. They would have needed no telling or reminding that after Marathon there had been naval hostilities between them and that the Athenians had by no means come out of those the better. Themistocles’s persuasive point, then, was that by replacing their relatively few and outmoded warships with a spanking new fleet of a hundred (or two hundred – the sources differ) new-style triremes, they would see off the Aeginetan threat for good and all.

The issue was in fact a much larger one. Indeed, it is hard to make sense of a series of bitterly fought personal political contests at Athens throughout the 480s, from which Themistocles uniformly emerged the winner, unless some major foreign policy factor such as Persia lay at the root of them. One by one those leading Athenians who either did not see the Persians as a threat, or imagined that they might somehow do a favourable deal with them, were eliminated from the Athenian political scene – physically, by means of the procedure of ostracism, for which Themistocles was always a serious ‘candidate’. There is even archaeologically preserved evidence of cabals of his enemies ganging up against him and using foul rather than fair means of persuading the voters. All to no avail. Themistocles always ‘won’, and by the late 480s had emerged with renewed strength and enthusiasm as the unopposed champion of not merely the anti-Aeginetan but the anti-Persian cause.

But Athens could not do it by herself, any more than could Sparta. How, then, was a coalition of the more or less willing Greek resisters to be cobbled together? This was the question facing the delegates of a number of Greek cities at the first meeting they called in 482, or more likely the autumn of 481, to debate the issue of united resistance to Xerxes. According to Herodotus, that first meeting was held at the Isthmus of Corinth, within a shrine dedicated to Poseidon Lord of the Sea. But according to a much later source, ‘Baedeker’ Pausanias (the Periegete, or ‘Traveller’)*writing a nostalgic historicizing travelogue of Greece in the second century CE, it was at a site in Sparta called the Hellenion (‘Place of the Greeks’). Whom should we believe?

That there was a structure in Sparta called the Hellenion in the later second century CE (the date of Pausanias’s visit) there is no cause for us to doubt. There is good reason, too, for supposing that it had been there since the fifth century BCE, along with the Persian Stoa, or colonnade, built to commemorate Sparta’s key part in the famous victory over the Persians in 480–479. But was it already there before Xerxes’s invasion in 480? I personally doubt it. It seems far more likely that it was constructed after 479, as a war memorial, like the Spartans’ Persian Stoa. It would therefore have served as a very useful site for generating the myth that it was there that a united ‘Greek’ resistance had been first decided upon.

The Spartans, moreover, had a particularly strong reason for wanting to claim this as the site. Though there was never any real question but that they would have to be the overall leaders of any sort of unified Greek resistance to the Persians, their track record as leaders in 480 and 479 was not unimpeachable. It gave rise to the view – promoted heavily by Sparta’s enemies in the generations after the Graeco-Persian Wars – that Sparta had been less than one hundred per cent eager and willing to commit to the defence of central Greece beyond the Peloponnese, ‘their’ sphere of influence. Such hostile rumours started to fly around as early as 480, despite the heroic defence at Thermopylae, and were especially rife during the run-up to the decisive Battle of Plataea in 479, when it was alleged that the Spartans were more interested in sealing themselves off behind a wall stretching right across the Isthmus than in sending an army into Boeotia in central Greece to face Mardonius. In short, there was all the more reason for the Spartans in the years that followed to have promoted the notion that they had been gung-ho for maximum resistance from the word go – after all, had they not taken the initiative and summoned the Greeks to Sparta, to the Hellenion, for a war conference in 481?

Actually, they probably had not. It is far more likely that the meeting would have been held at some more central geographical point, and most appropriately of all at an already existing panhellenic – all Greek and only-Greek – site containing a major religious sanctuary. For the only thing that then united Sparta and its allies with Athens and some other central Greek states, apart from the extreme necessity imposed by their common threat from Xerxes, was their ‘Greekness’.* Though not specifically a political concept, the common qualities that ‘Greekness’ stated or implied might on occasion result in unified political action – and one of those, very rare, occasions was in the brief but climactic period from 482 or 481 through to 479.

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Modern Sparta was not to be outdone by the on-site modern memorials to Thermopylae and proudly displays its own ‘Leonidas’ on the exact same model, heroically posed at the end of the city’s main thoroughfare with the modest Spartan Acropolis and far more imposing Taygetus for backdrops.

The four existing panhellenic sites were Olympia, the Isthmus of Corinth, Delphi and Delos. The tiny Aegean island of Delos, birthplace of Apollo and sacred to the god, was ruled out automatically since it was in effect already within the Persian sphere. The Persian fleet controlled most of the Aegean, and Delos in the centre of the Cyclades was too near to the Persian-held Asiatic coast of the Aegean and its offshore islands to be allowed independence. Delphi, the holiest place in the whole Greek world, was the site not only of a panhellenic shrine and oracle but also of one of the meeting-places of an alliance of neigh-bouring states known as the Amphictyonic League, that embraced Sparta as well as Athens but more than half of whose permanent members came from Thessaly. The loyalty of Thessaly to any anti-Persian cause was doubtful in the extreme, thanks not least to the longstanding blatant medism of the Aleuads, the aristocratic ruling clan of the chief city Larissa, and in the event all Thessaly fell to Persia without a blow. Besides, the Delphic priesthood, as the events of 480 in particular were to expose, was by no means committed to advocating any resistance to Persia whatsoever. Partly for lofty religious reasons, and partly for wholly mundane and selfish ones, its line on Persia was at best quietist, at worst frankly defeatist. So Delphi was no more appropriate a venue for a crisis resistance conference than Delos. That left Olympia and the Isthmus.

Olympia, devoted to Zeus of Mt Olympus, was indeed a venerable panhellenic shrine. It had been such since at least the eighth century BCE, when – according to learned calculations by the local polymath Hippias of Elis in the later fifth century – the first panhellenic athletic contests had been held, in 776 BCE. Moreover, there was at Olympia an oracle sacred to Zeus, father of Apollo of Delos and Delphi, which may imply that this oracular shrine was even older than that at Delphi. However, there was one major obstacle to the choice of Olympia for the resistance conference: namely, what might well have been perceived as the undue influence of Sparta over the sanctuary.

The city that managed the shrine and the Olympic Games, and had done so for centuries, was Elis, and Elis was an ally of Sparta within her Peloponnesian League. Besides, as the archaeological as well as the literary evidence shows, Sparta maintained an unusually close and continuous interest in Olympia, both officially and unofficially, and Elis reciprocated that concern. One of the more interesting objects now gracing the Olympia Museum, for example, is a handsome marble seat with an inscription carved upon it. The inscription, which dates the seat to about 525, states that it was made for the Spartans’ proxenos at Elis; that is, the citizen of Elis who served as the Spartans’ local diplomatic representative, a sort of consul. The proxenos‘s name was an unusual one, Gorgos, recalling that of Gorgo (born about 508), the daughter of the contemporary Spartan king Cleomenes and future wife of King Leonidas. It is by no means impossible that there was a personal relationship of xenia between the Elean Gorgos and the family of Cleomenes.* At any rate it was presumably Sparta that paid for Gorgos’s fancy seat, and Elis that permitted it to be erected prominently at Olympia. It would have enabled him to cut a proper figure at the Games as well as watch them in some style and comfort.

With Olympia too ruled out, only the panhellenic shrine at Isthmia was left, dedicated to Corinth’s patron god Poseidon (brother of Zeus). Initially, it might be thought that this site too would suffer from its connection with Sparta; Corinth, like Elis, was a member of Sparta’s Peloponnesian League. However, against that could be set Corinth’s record of proven independence from, indeed outright disloyalty to, Sparta. It was the Corinthians who, in concert with King Demaratus, had scuppered Cleomenes’s expedition against newly democratic Athens in about 505. That might have made the Athenians, the next most important state after Sparta among the potential resisters to Persia, look quite favourably on the Corinthians even twenty years later, especially as we know that in the late 490s or early 480s the Corinthians had loaned the navy-poor Athenians twenty warships in their struggle with the Aeginetans. But what tipped the scales decisively in favour of Isthmia were surely several other factors in combination. Isthmia was still just within the Peloponnese, for Sparta, and within relatively easy striking distance, for Athens. Geopolitically, it was central for all southern mainland Greeks. It also had just the right religious symbolic association. Poseidon was the Greeks’ universal sea god, and whatever else resistance to Persia would involve, it would undoubtedly involve a combined Greek navy, of which the Athenians would contribute the lion’s share.

Now, the Isthmus is where Herodotus said the delegates of the would-be resisters first met; I think he should be believed. But that the delegates met at all is memorable enough in itself. When Herodotus at a climactic moment of his narrative (after Salamis, before Plataea, in winter 480/79) invokes a definition of Greekness, the list of unifying factors he cites signally does not include political co-operation, let alone union. In the event, what seems to have emerged from the meeting is some sort of loose coalition, an alliance for mutual defence based on and constituted by the oaths sworn mutually in the name of the witnessing and guaranteeing gods. This way, a breach of the pact would be sacrilege in the sight of heaven as well as a purely human, mundane and secular transgression.

The ‘league’ thus formed seems to have been called, simply but expressively, ‘the Greeks’ (hoi Hellênes). Its acknowledged leaders were to be the Spartans, thanks to their unique fighting prowess and because they already headed the only non-religious, non-ethnic multi-state Greek military alliance then in existence, the Peloponnesian League. Spartan precedence is made clear, not explicitly by Herodotus but by the text of a monument, once magnificent but now visible only as a poor shadow of its original self. It squats today forlornly in the hippodrome, the race-course, of ancient Constantinople. But originally it had been erected proudly at Delphi.

After the fighting was all over in 479, and Delphi had been forgiven for its medism, the Greek coalition set up in Apollo’s sanctuary there as a thank-offering and war memorial a cauldron supported by three bronze coils topped by snakes’ heads. On the coils was written, in truly laconic style, the following message: ‘[By these] the war was fought …’ There follow the names of thirty-one Greek states/cities, identified in the usual Greek way by the collective name of the citizens. First comes ‘Lacedaemonians’, the Spartans. Of the other thirty, no fewer than fourteen were members of Sparta’s Peloponnesian League: Corinthians, Tegeans, Sicyonians, Aeginetans, Megarians, Epidaurians, Erchomenians,* Phleiasians, Troezenians, Hermionians, Tirynthians, Mycenaeans, Halieians and Lepreans. Of the remainder, the Cycladic island of Melos, Dorian by ethnicity, claimed to be a ‘colony’ (apoikia) of Sparta. That would have given Sparta and its immediate allies and satellites an overall controlling majority – if votes were needed, and if the procedure that operated in the Peloponnesian League congresses was also adopted by ‘the Greeks’.

Such was Sparta’s pre-eminence that it was agreed the city would formally exercise command of coalition forces by sea as well as by land – a travesty, in practical terms, though fortunately the fact that a Spartan was technically admiral-in-chief in both 480 and 479 had no decisively negative consequences. Athenian postwar propaganda did like to make out that Athens would have made an equally good overall leader of the Greeks, or at least joint leader, by taking over the direction of affairs by sea. It was even claimed that the Athenians had graciously, if ostentatiously, declined to bid for such a rightful position. But that was just wishful invention. Really, in 481 there would have been no debating or questioning Sparta’s title.

A third party, however, is also said to have claimed a share in the overall command. Because its claim is so intrinsically implausible, it is probably authentic. Gelon was a major Sicilian Greek tyrant ruler in the first quarter of the fifth century. He made himself tyrant first, in about 490, of Gela on the south coast,* and then in about 485 of the most important Sicilian Greek city, Syracuse (founded from Corinth in the 730s), ceding Gela to his brother Hieron. By alliance and conquest Gelon created in Sicily what can fairly be called an empire, and, as an (admittedly relatively petty) imperial ruler and a Greek, he felt entitled to stand up to Xerxes in the name of all the Greeks. So – allegedly – he made the coalition Greeks an offer they could and did refuse: he said he would throw the weight of his military forces behind the resistance on condition that he be granted half of the overall command.

There was a further, serious dimension to this offer, though, which provides the first major linkage between eastern and central Mediterranean Greek history since the seventh century. For Gelon had his own troubles with invading ‘barbarians’ much closer to home, in the form of the Phoenicians of Carthage in north Africa (modern Tunisia). They, like the Greeks, had planted a number of ‘colonies’ in Sicily, mainly in the far west of the island. And they both envied Gelon his hegemony and wished to safeguard their lucrative trade routes, which ran from north Africa westwards via Sicily to Spain (and even Britain – to the tin mines of Cornwall). So while the Greeks of ‘old’ Greece were threatened from the East by the Persians, the Greeks of ‘new’ Greece, the golden West, were threatened by barbarian invaders from the south. There was even talk of co-ordination between the two sets of barbarians, since the Phoenicians of old Phoenicia (Lebanon) formed the elite of Xerxes’s navy. At any rate, Sicilian Greek tradition fervently maintained that the Battle of Himera in north-western Sicily, in which the Carthaginians were defeated and repulsed by Greek forces under Gelon and Theron, the ruler of Acragas, was fought on the very same day as the Battle of Salamis off Attica, at the end of September 480.

Practically, however, the Greek West was to play no direct part in the coalition’s eventually successful resistance to Xerxes. The real issue that remained outstanding even after the formation of the coalition in 481 was strategic. What strategy was the coalition to adopt in face of Xerxes’s impending invasion, and how was it to be co-ordinated – both as between the land and the sea, and as between Sparta and Athens? Given the apparent fragility of the coalition when under direct fire in 480, and the seemingly unpreprogrammed switches of strategic policy, it would probably be fair to infer that between the first meeting of the loyalists at the Isthmus and the coalition’s first (not terribly) co-ordinated act of military resistance in summer 480 they had not got very far in their strategic planning.

After that first meeting the proto-coalition had sent out a reconnaissance party to spy on Xerxes’s forces, but more practically it had set about resolving through diplomacy a number of longstanding intra-Greek quarrels. Thus Aegina and Athens were quick to patch up their particular feud. Yet this advance was tempered by setbacks elsewhere. For example, so great was Argos’s hatred of Sparta that it refused to serve in any force led by her. Instead, it maintained a formal neutrality that bordered uncomfortably on lending aid and comfort to the Persian enemy. Nor was Argos by any means alone in not being motivated decisively by any form of panhellenic fellow-feeling.

The more consolidated coalition met for a second time, again probably at the Isthmus, in spring of 480. But, if any credence can be placed in Herodotus’s detailed account of the upheavals within Athens following on news that Xerxes was on the march in European Greece, even this meeting would not appear to have reached any very firm strategic conclusions. At any rate, whenever news of the formation of this resistance coalition reached Xerxes, he is unlikely to have quaked in his boots (or rather, his regal saffron-tinted slippers with the distinctive upturned toes). Bring ‘em on! he would have said, and in early summer that year the Persian juggernaut finally began to roll. From Sardis Xerxes moved towards the Hellespont via Troy (where he offered a thousand oxen to Athena – ten times a ‘standard’ hecatomb sacrifice). Was that historic defeat of Asia by Europe at Marathon now finally to be avenged?

The Persians’ crossing of the Hellespont from Abydus to Sestus by a double pontoon bridge of boats constructed by Phoenician and Egyptian engineers was a major logistical operation. The distance to be bridged was over two kilometres, the winds were strong, the currents – partly as a result of the winds – even stronger. The crossing, inevitably, took a long time: precisely seven days and nights, according to Herodotus. But it would have taken even longer, we are given to understand, had whips not been used pour encourager les autres, with Xerxes looking on from the Sestus side of the narrows.

This was not just a neutral report of a factual occurrence. For Greek readers and listeners it was another of those culturally coded pieces of information with which Herodotus studs his history. Whips, to Greek eyes, were only for slaves, not free men, who (with but very few exceptions) were by definition exempted from corporal chastisement. Indeed, in Greece whips were used by free, slave-owning men precisely to symbolize and solidify this fundamental division of status. Xerxes’s later order to have his troops whipped into battle at Thermopylae will not therefore have surprised Herodotus’s Greek audience.

From Sestus the army marched north-east along the Thracian Chersonesus (the Gallipoli peninsula), then turned sharply west into western, Odrysian Thrace.* That Xerxes was leading the expedition in person was a sure sign of its prime importance to him. At a place called Doriscus, close enough to the coast, and where there was a conveniently large plain, he called a halt and a forces review.

Herodotus, here at his most Homeric, seizes the opportunity to rival Homer’s ‘Catalogue of the Ships’ in Book 2 of the Iliad. But whereas Homer had to catalogue only the thousand or so Greek ships launched by the face (and other bodily parts, no doubt) of Helen, Herodotus had teeming masses of land troops from a rainbow of subject nations to describe, as well as the relatively more homogeneous Persian navy. Nor would the irony have been lost on his original readers that, whereas Homer was cataloguing the forces of the eventual victors, Herodotus was cataloguing those of the losers – as if to imply that size was not everything.

Modern scholarly readers, however, are less easily satisfied. I dare venture with some confidence that there is not a single professional historian today who believes in the accuracy of Herodotus’s reported figures of 1,700,000 Persian land troops and over 1,200 warships registered at the initial European muster at Doriscus in western Thrace. (Later, adding in the forces raised in Europe, Herodotus gives even higher figures, such that the total number on the march with Xerxes numbered over five million souls – 5,283,220 to be (im)precise!) Perhaps some rivers en route really were drunk dry, as he says; this was all happening in early summer, not winter or spring, and large deep rivers were not all that common. But his figures have been cut down regardless, by other commentators, to as (relatively) few as 80,000 and 600 respectively. Perhaps 80,000 is rather excessively low. However, any serious reduction would have the effect of putting the Greek coalition’s achievement in a somewhat different light, and that, I suspect, is one of the major reasons why Herodotus was so keen to maximize the enemy numbers.

Sceptics have also claimed that Herodotus’s sources were Greek and therefore either misinformed or deliberately disinformative; for example, it has been argued that it is unlikely all the subject nations of the Persian Empire would in fact have been represented. Against that, it has been countered – plausibly, to my mind – that the presence of the Great King himself at the head of the united army and navy would have entailed a maximally representative force. It is also possible, as in the case of his accounts of Darius’s accession and of the tribute of the Empire, that Herodotus somehow gained access to authentic Persian sources here too.

Here are some highlights from Herodotus’s ‘catalogue’ (translated in full in Appendix 2) which also give some sense of the – incurably amorphous – shape and stretch of Xerxes’s forces. Relatively few of them had of course ever fought together before, and even fewer on this Greek terrain. Herodotus’s infantry list begins naturally with the Persians, the inhabitants of what the Greeks called Persis in southern Iran. They were commanded by Xerxes’s father-in-law Otanes (whose daughter Amestris was the Great King’s long-suffering principal wife).

On their heads they wore the tiara, a soft felt cap, about their bodies an embroidered and sleeved tunic, [over which was fitted a covering] of a coat of chain mail that looked like fish-scales, and around their legs trousers (anaxurides). They bore shields of light wickerwork, below which were slung quivers; short spears, but long arrows with reed shafts; and daggers hanging down from a belt beside their right thigh.4

Three things would have struck a Greek reader very forcefully about this description. Unlike the typical Greek hoplite infantryman, with his large and heavy, basically wooden shield and his long, iron-spiked thrusting spear, the Persians were light-armed. Second, they were archers as well as hand-to-hand fighters, whereas the Greeks partly for social reasons kept those two kinds of soldiers radically distinct. Third, horror of horrors, they wore trousers (the wrong ones, presumably). That might seem to us eminently sane and practical, but dress codes are never wholly rational, and the Greeks chose to make of this item of apparel a marker of ineradicable cultural difference. Real men don’t wear trousers! Herodotus, however, did not let that get in the way of his measured and objective view that the native Persians were Xerxes’s best fighting troops, trousers or no trousers, as well as the most magnificently equipped. They included above all the elite 10,000-strong Persian infantry force known to the Greeks as the Immortals, who were a sort of glorified royal bodyguard.*

To a Greek eye, the Persians’ way of war had other alien features besides. They brought along with them on campaign vast numbers of ‘camp-followers’, their women and servants, who were conveyed by and indeed lived in elaborately fitted-out covered carriages. They ate especially elaborate food, transported by an immense baggage train of camels and mules. But what seems to have struck Herodotus most is the sheer amount of gold that every one of the Persian soldiers carried and wore about his person, which glinted and glistered amazingly in the sunlight. Gold, to a Greek, was an ambivalent symbol – highly desirable but also potentially hazardous, if not fatal.

After the Persians come, inevitably, the Medes of northern Iran. At least here Herodotus was able to tell the two peoples apart, though he does add that the Persians’ dress and equipment were originally borrowed from the Medes. Whether this is technically true or not, he is certainly right to remind his readers that the Medes had ‘been there’ before the Persians. Cyrus the Great and his Achaemenid successors had a solid base of Median empire on which to build, and the fact that the Persian Empire became a truly world empire, the first ever, was crucially due to this prolonged and mostly harmonious co-operation between the two related peoples of the Iranian heartland.

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Bisitun lies not far from Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana, capital of Media in northern Iran). Here Darius I had carved into the rock the visual equivalent of a royal chronicle, designed to demonstrate how he personally had restored order to a kingdom troubled by rebellion and had brought the ringleaders of revolt literally to heel. Above the submissive rebels hovers the winged sun-disc symbol of Ahura Mazda, great Zoroastrian god of light and emblem of the Achaemenid monarchy; behind the king are carved two key court officials. To accompany the visual images, Darius also had incised in the rock a trilingual message – in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian – spelling out how and why, and in whose name (Ahura Mazda’s), he had saved Persia. This trilingual inscription proved crucial to the decipherment (by Henry Rawlinson) of Old Persian cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing, which enables us to read a host of primary bureaucratic texts.

It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that the Median contingent was commanded by a member of the Achaemenid Persian royal family, one Tigranes.* Of the other nationalities and peoples who were also said to be equipped more or less in Median fashion it may be worth singling out those who lived on offshore islands in the Persian Gulf; for these islands were specially used by the Great King as penal resettlement colonies for recalcitrants and rebel subjects, Greeks among others.

After the Persians and the Medes we encounter a number of other Iranian and adjacent peoples, among them the Cissians and the Hyrcanians, the latter under the command of a Persian who survived the fiasco in Greece to achieve the plum post of satrap of Babylonia (now southern Iraq). From further north in Iraq came the Assyrians, descendants of the once formidable imperial power that had been laid low by the Medes at the end of the seventh century.

From what is today northern Afghanistan came the men of Bactria, home of the two-humped camel that under Persian aegis was exported as far west as Egypt. Another trouser-wearing people were the Sacae, a subgroup of the Scythians of the Caspian region, one of whose kings had been represented on the Bisitun relief of Darius. The Bactrian contingent and the Sacae were commanded as a mark of their importance by a full, older, brother of Xerxes, Hystaspes, named after their paternal grandfather. The Parthians and Chorasmians of Iran were commanded by Artabazus, son of Darius’s major administrator Pharnaces.

Moving, next, to the east of Iran and beyond the Hindu Kush mountain range of eastern Afghanistan, we meet Xerxes’s Indians. By India was meant essentially the Punjab, and so a province that is mostly located in Pakistan today with only a very small portion running over the modern border into the state of India. It had been conquered by Darius but was in fact lost well before the arrival of Alexander the Great in 327. In his listing of imperial revenues, Herodotus had noted the huge amount of gold-dust the Indian satrapy was obliged to hand over by way of annual tribute; here he provides an early mention of the celebrated Indian cotton, the fabric of the Indians’ clothing.

Moving back to the west of Mesopotamia, we get to Anatolia. Here one non-Greek people from south of the Black Sea stands out in Herodotus’s account, the Paphlagonians:*

The Paphlagonians served with plaited helmets on their heads, small shields and moderately sized spears, light javelins and daggers; on their feet they wore native boots reaching to mid-calf.

This last was a detail of some interest to sandal-wearing Greek infantrymen. Other non-Greeks mentioned include the Macrones and Mossynoeci, who were commanded by a Persian based, only just, in Europe: Artayctes son of Cherasmis, governor of Sestus.The crucifixion of Artayctes by the victorious Greeks in 479 is the last event described by Herodotus in his continuous narration of the Graeco-Persian Wars and practically the climax of the entire work.

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Blacks were always a minority subject in Greek art, but Greek painters of the early fifth century knew an Ethiopian (‘burnt-face’) when they saw one, and valued them for their exotic appeal on olive-oil flasks such as this alabastron, a fancy version of an everyday utility object for people who used oil for rubbing down and cleansing after exercise.

Where, though, in the infantry catalogue are the Asiatic Greek hoplites and light-armed? The short answer is – nowhere: apart from the one cryptic statement that ‘The Lydians bore arms and armour [hopla] very like the Greeks.’5 Earlier, however, Herodotus had cleverly made Xerxes point out to Artabanus in one of their supposed conversations that the ‘Ionians’ were effectively hostages: ‘Why should we fear that they will cause trouble and disaffection,* when they have left behind their children, wives and property in our domain?’ ‘Our’ here is in the fullest sense the possessive form of ‘the royal “we”.’

So much for the Asiatic contingents of Xerxes’s taskforce. Moving south and east to Africa we find first the Arabians, then the Ethiopians both eastern and southern (that is, the Nubians), then finally the Libyans. Herodotus specially noted the (southern) Ethiopians’ painting of their bodies, half with chalk, half with vermilion, their tight curly hair, and their wearing of the skins of leopards and lions, all thoroughly exotic to Greek eyes.

Last come Xerxes’s European infantry contingents, both non-Greek and Greek. Spanning the Asia–Europe divide were Thracians, most of whom were Europeans.* Herodotus then lists the six Generals of the High Command, the marshals of the army.

In first place, Mardonius son of Gobryas, keenest advocate of the expedition after (if not before) Xerxes himself. Next follows Tritantaechmes, son of Artabanus (Xerxes’s wise adviser) and so Xerxes’s first cousin. Then Smerdomenes, a son of the great Otanes (one of the original co-conspirators with Darius in the late 520s), another nephew of Darius and so another first cousin of Xerxes. Next Masistes, another full brother of Xerxes – with whom, as Herodotus was to detail lovingly towards the very end of his work, Xerxes was later to fall out so spectacularly on account of the Great King’s fatal passion for Masistes’s wife. Then, fifthly, Gergis son of Ariazus, and finally Megabyzus son of the Zopyrus whom Darius is said to have rated as a benefactor to Persia second only after Cyrus (and, we presume, himself). In a separate category, between the High Command and the Great King himself, falls Hydarnes, son of Hydarnes the very high official who had received the two Spartan ambassadors at Sardis in about 484 and given them a lesson in Persian etiquette that they took very ill indeed. He was privileged to command the Immortals and was to play a key role, or even the key role, in winning the Battle of Thermopylae for Xerxes.

Xerxes’s cavalry troops played no significant role at Thermopylae, although the defeat of the cavalry around Mardonius, himself on horseback, was an essential preliminary to the eventual rout of the Persians at the finally decisive battle at Plataea the following year. Only eleven non-Greek peoples provided cavalry (once again, the Greeks – of Macedonia and Thessaly – are not catalogued). Two are especially striking: first, the Sagartians, because they were cowboys – their weapon of choice was the plaited-leather lasso (though they also carried daggers); and, second, the Arabians, because they rode not horses but a type of fast camel specially bred for use in war. There were two supreme cavalry commanders, both sons of Datis the Mede. Clearly, their father’s upset at Marathon, where the Persians’ cavalry was conspicuous in the defeat only by its absence, was not considered a reason not to appoint them.

The third main element of Herodotus’s massive catalogue was a Catalogue of the Ships, all – allegedly – 1,207 of them. Herodotus rightly begins with the Phoenicians (of modern Lebanon) and the neo-Assyrians to their north, all of whom inhabited a land known then as ‘Palestine’. They together contributed 300 ships, about a quarter of the total fleet. Then came the Egyptians with 200, the Cypriots (both Phoenician and Greek) with 150, and the Cilicians (of south-west Anatolia) with 100. These figures are all probably rounded. None of the other non-Greek ship-contributors managed to reach three figures, the highest contribution being the Carians’ 70.

In the case of the fleet catalogue, Herodotus does inescapably include Xerxes’s Greek subjects, who furnished a combined total of 307 ships. This was divided five ways between the Hellespontine/ Bosporan Greeks (100), the Ionians (100 – Herodotus at any rate could distinguish Ionians from other Asiatic Greeks), the Aeolians (60), the Asiatic Dorians (30), and the offshore islanders (a mere 17).* This total, if correctly given, was the highest of all, and, though Herodotus does not spell it out, the implication was crystal-clear. This was to be not only a war of Greeks against Persians, but also a war of Greeks against Greeks; what he called elsewhere6 with great sadness an emphulos stasis, a civil war within a single people or ethnic group.

All the Persians’ ships, Herodotus continues, had a large complement of marines, as indeed did the ships of the loyalist coalition’s fleet. This feature of sea-fighting in the period 480–479 was one that Thucydides would later sneer at by comparison with the more sophisticated fleets of his own day in the Atheno-Peloponnesian War. The naval combats of the Graeco-Persian Wars seemed to him more to resemble land battles on the sea than proper sea battles in which the ship itself was the main weapon. Herodotus, too, is exceptionally dismissive of the lower-level naval commanders, who he says were mere ‘slaves’ (douloi), meaning slaves of Xerxes ultimately. But he lists honorifically by name all the Persians of the naval High Command, and they include a number of members of the royal family and its extensions by marriage. For example, the Egyptian squadron (200 ships) was commanded by Xerxes’s full brother with the dynastic name of Achaemenes; and the joint Ionian and Carian squadron (170) by a son born to Darius and a daughter of Gobryas father of Mardonius.

Herodotus also lists by name a number of individuals whom he calls ‘the most nameworthy’ or ‘the most celebrated’ (onomastotatoi) after the high admirals: three Phoenicians, a Cilician, a Lycian, two (Greek) Cypriots and three Carians. All, as one would expect and predict, were male. But then, quite extraordinarily, he bursts into a paean of praise for one woman, finding it a marvel (thôma) in itself that a woman should have taken any part whatsoever in the campaign, let alone played such a prominent role. The woman was Greek – it would be hard to imagine a non-Greek woman being allowed any sort of role under Xerxes, perhaps – the daughter of a Halicarnassian father and a Cretan mother, and her name was Artemisia (a ‘theophoric’ name, based on that of the virgin huntress goddess Artemis). She commanded five Greek warships from four Greek cities or islands (Halicarnassus, Cos, Nisyra and Calynda). She did so, Herodotus reports, in virtue of being a tyrannos, an autocratic sole ruler, who had inherited this position from her late husband. Put differently, she was a Persian quisling. The reason for believing any or all of this is that Herodotus too was a native Halicarnassian, born too late to have known what Artemisia was like at first hand but patriotic enough to want to give her – and therefore his city – a place in the sun, even if it did happen to be shining on the Persian side.

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This calcite jar was made in the reign of Xerxes (486–65) and is inscribed ‘Xerxes Great King of Persia’ in trilingual script (Old Persian, Elamite, Babylonian – the same three languages as on the Bisitun rock-cut inscription of Darius). But it was found in the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, which was not built until over a century later, so perhaps originally it had been a gift to the shrine of Artemis at Halicarnassus, preserved as a valuable heirloom, and appropriated by Mausolus’s widow and successor as Persian vassal to shed dynastic lustre on her late brother-husband’s memory.

This presumably explains why in her case uniquely Herodotus anticipates his narrative of the Wars by adding that Artemisia not only furnished the ‘most reputable’ (eudoxotatai) ships in the entire fleet – apart from those furnished by Phoenician Sidon – but also allegedly gave Xerxes the ‘sagest counsels’ (gnômai aristai),* ‘man-to-man’ advice, as it were, because Herodotus again uniquely applies to Artemisia, a woman, the Greek word for bravery that meant literally ‘manliness’, andreia. When he comes to depict her in action, at Salamis, he has her displaying not only a manly bravery of sorts but also a cunning worthy of an Odysseus. To make good her escape from a coalition Greek ship, she rammed and sank a Greek ship fighting on the Persian side, making it look as though it were an enemy vessel. This deceptively noble exploit reportedly provoked from Xerxes the wondrously gender-bending exclamation ‘My men have become women, my women men!’

Artabanus is said by Herodotus to have commented to Xerxes on this truly awesome armada:

No one in his right mind, my Lord, could find any fault with the size of your army or the numbers of your ships.7

But he sagely added that the sheer size and numbers of them would inevitably mean that Xerxes was going to have trouble finding adequate harbours to shelter the fleet and providing adequate supplies of food. He therefore counselled him to take a worst-case-scenario view with respect to planning, but to act boldly and decisively in execution of the plans once they had been prudently formulated. At which the younger, less experienced and more optimistic but also more impetuous Great King supposedly expostulated:

It’s better to run every risk and take the negative consequences in half of them than to be paralysed by fear and never have any positive consequences at all.

The dramatic irony would not have been lost on Herodotus’s audience, who knew well that the dice had not rolled favourably for their Persian adversary.

For all his eagerness for the invasion and conquest of Greece, it is nonetheless noticeable that Xerxes took his time to get from Doriscus through Macedonia to Thessaly. A number of different reasons accounted for his slow progress. First, simple logistics – Persian armies did not travel light, and baggage-trains such as his did gravely impede an army on the hoof.* Nor was movement facilitated by a specially built Royal Road. Second, notions of royal grandeur were at stake. Xerxes wished to make and to leave behind him an impression of stately magnificence. Third, and by no means least, he was keen to encourage the further spread of what had come be known to the Greeks as ‘medism’. The more slowly the juggernaut advanced, and the more irresistible, inevitable and inexorable its progress appeared, the more likely were wavering Greeks to follow the example of the Aleuads of Thessalian Larissa and cross over to the Persian camp. Eventually, sometime in July, Xerxes’s land forces reached the border between Macedonia and Thessaly, the vale of Tempe, which is the main route for motor traffic from Macedonia through Thessaly to central Greece.

Tempe was also the first line of defence picked by the Greek resistance coalition. Two commanders had been placed in overall charge, to reflect the dual leadership of Sparta and Athens: respectively, Euainetus and Themistocles. But it has to be said that each was a rather puzzling choice. The absence of a royal Spartan commander from this first coalition initiative is noteworthy; typically, all land expeditions involving Spartan forces were led by a Spartan king. On the other hand, it seems odd of the Athenians to select Themistocles to lead a defence that apparently was to be conducted at first solely by land; Themistocles was nothing if he was not a naval man. Indeed, it is Herodotus’s treatment of this earliest phase of the resistance that has caused some scholars to wonder whether he really understood the inevitably amphibious nature of any conceivable resistance to Xerxes’s blatantly amphibious invasion force. It has even been asked whether Herodotus possessed any strategic sense at all. The puzzle is only compounded by the speedy abandonment of the Tempe ‘line’, when it was discovered – as it ought surely to have been much sooner – that the pass could be ‘turned’, that is outflanked.

The likeliest explanation is that the ‘Greeks’ comprising the resistance coalition had not yet really worked out a viable, co-ordinated strategy of any sort. Hence the hugely increased significance of the first seriously defensible and genuine line that was chosen next: the amphibious Thermopylae–Artemisium axis. Though, according to Herodotus, even that was selected only after some last-minute hesitation and dissension among the coalition loyalists had been knocked on the head by Leonidas. Appropriately enough, when the extraordinary threat posed by Xerxes’s transit through Thessaly past Tempe had become unmissably acute, Sparta reacted in the most extraordinary and extraordinarily decisive manner imaginable.

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